Born on this day in 1908 to sharecroppers, Viola Susan Frances Oliver began the journey that would take over 96 years to complete.
She lost her mother at age 2 and lived with her grandmother, grandfather, dad and little brother, Euphrates. Nanny’s father never spoke with her of her mother…refused to share any details of her death. All she knew was that her mother died.
She came down with Small Pox at age 4 and was so sick for so long that she had to learn to walk again. Until a few years before her death, she had a place on her lower leg that refused to heal and continued to ooze enough to require a covering.
Her childhood was lived without the conveniences of electricity, indoor plumbing, or iceboxes. Too keep milk cold, it was placed in the spring that bubbled up out of the ground – always cold, always clean.
Deprived of an education (her daddy felt girls didn’t need schooling), she taught herself to read and do arithmetic. Good thing – her sporadic school attendance ended before 4th grade.
“You can’t go there, you can’t do that…you’re a girl” was often told her by her dad. She envied her brother and his ability to be with their dad…simply because he was a boy.
World War 1 (The Great War) touched her, as it did all.
The flu epidemic that tore across the world in 1918 and ripped apart families touched her, and her family, too, claiming several close to her – an uncle (her father’s brother) and a cousin (his daughter). Her father married her Aunt Emma – the widow of his brother.
At age 19, she married Poppy (he was 21) on a covered bridge on the 26th of October. The setting was, no doubt, picturesque…the bridge…the creek…the brilliant Autumn foliage. This was before Kodak and cell phones, so there were no pictures. The preacher who performed the ceremony became her brother-in-law when he pronounced them husband and wife. He went by the nickname “Son Johnny.”
Nanny and Poppy lived with Maw Thomas on the “Old Thomas Place.” Paw had died several years prior. (If memory serves me correctly, he was kicked by a horse, or a mule.)
My mother was born a year and a month after they married – after a bout of what Nanny thought was a belly ache from eating turnips.
When it appeared labor was well underway, one of Poppy’s younger brothers set out on their mule to get the doctor. He arrived in time to deliver her and then promptly left. There was no prenatal or postnatal care for Nanny – and no pediatrician to check the baby or to give 6 weeks shots. And, there were no 6 weeks shots to give.
When her mother in law attempted to tell her what to do and how to care for her newborn daughter, Nanny said to her, “Maw when you had your babies, you did exactly as you pleased with them and I’ll bet no one told you how to raise them. Isn’t that right?” Maw was reported to have said, “That’s right! I raised my babies exactly as I saw fit.” Nanny replied, “And, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.” And, she did.
Her firstborn – my mother – was the first thing that was truly hers.
It was said that when my mother was born, her daddy was sent out to check his traps and when he returned was allowed into the house to see his wife and new baby. Momma had been cleaned up and wrapped up, then placed on the old black trunk that sat beside the bed. Poppy came in and started to sit down on the trunk beside the bed and Nanny screamed, “NO! Don’t sit there, you’ll sit on the baby!”
A son came along a couple of years later.
And, then when my mom was 4 and her brother was 2, Poppy came down with TB (tuberculosis) and Nanny moved her family (and their cow) from miles out in the country to the big city so her husband could receive treatment at the TB Sanatorium. Her children were placed there as well for 2 or 3 months – as a precaution.
While in the hospital, word arrived that Poppy’s mother had died after supper one night from a massive heart attack. Nanny obtained permission for Poppy and their children to leave the hospital for several days. She then contacted a mail carrier that she knew and arranged for him to take them back to the country for the funeral. They arrived at the end of the service, just as they were closing the casket.
She had no car and no transportation. She lived miles from the Sanatorium and so walked there to be with her family when she wasn’t working. Yes, she had to support herself and her young family.
She worked WPA jobs before they let her go – she made too much.
The first was a sewing job where she had to provide her own sewing machine (heavy machine with a huge cabinet) and walk to and from work each day. The second was at a meat cannery. She said the beef smelled so good cooking…she wished she could have eaten some.
Times were hard…far harder than any of us know or understand.
Poppy was unable to work. One lung remained collapsed and though he no longer tested positive, he continued to take medication to suppress and treat TB.
My mom and her brother were poster kids for TB when they were 8 and 6.
They were poor and on Welfare. When she worked, she made too much for Welfare, but not enough to support her family. Nanny was afraid her children would be taken from her because she was unable to provide all they wanted and needed.
A third child was born 17 years after the first – daughter #2.
Her husband never fully recovered his strength and suffered a stroke that left him unable to work.
And, then a heart attack claimed him when I was 6.
Nanny was on her own.
6 years later, her only son died of a massive heart attack…no warning…just a phone call in the night saying he was gone.
She lived a hard life, but her heart remained tender.
Viola Thomas, or Nanny as I knew her, was an amazing woman. She was self made, and made of stern stuff. My dad once said of her, “She’s a tough ol’ bird!”
I can’t imagine the hardships and heartbreaks she had from her earliest memories. Yet she never complained, never was bitter, never let her circumstances get her down.
Her laughter, silenced years ago by death, still rings in my ears when I think of her.
She loved life. She loved her family. And, she loved her God. And, all three loved her back.
I love you, Nanny. And, I miss you so much! Happy 105th Birthday!!